before noon on Nov. 9, 1881, the wind blew out of the north and a light rain fell
from a sky as gray as an old Confederate Army coat. With the norther dropping
the temperature, maybe the porter sweeping the floor in the Attorney General’s
office on the Capitol’s first floor had in mind warming up the room. Or maybe
Henry McBride just wanted to get rid of a basket of wastepaper the easy way, by
stuffing the trash into the heating stove.|
Whatever his intention had been,
McBride moved on to the next room, pushing his broom. But soon he smelled smoke.
Running back into the room where the stove sat, he found that pieces of burning
paper and embers had fallen onto the wooden floor. As he watched in astonishment,
the fire quickly spread. All he could do was run.
Texas State Capitol Building|
Photo Courtesy Texas State Library And Archives
A writer for Texas
Siftings walking home for lunch noticed wisps of smoke coming from one of the
windows of the limestone statehouse. “That’s the way those State officials waste
firewood,” he thought, or at least so he claimed in a tongue-in-cheek article
he later wrote. “There they are toasting their sinful shins before fires in which
they waste enough wood to do a respectable family for a week.”
the fire bell atop City Hall began ringing. The number of clangs informed the
volunteer fire fightersrushing to the hall to get their equipmentthat
the fire was in the 8th ward, downtown Austin.
The limestone capitol had been a bonfire waiting to happen.
Gov. Oran Roberts,
remembering the 1865 robbery of the state’s treasury, feared history was repeating
itself. Holdup men must have started a fire in the Capitol to divert attention,
he thought. The governor quickly ordered several Texas Rangers who had been camped
on the Capitol grounds to go guard the vault.
The only enemy on this day,
however, was the natural consequence of fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source.
“It was a thrilling scene,” the next edition of Texas Siftings reported. “The
fire’s demon cruel tongues licked the fair proportions of the historic pile, while
huge volumes of black smoke poured from the doomed building, and settled over
the fair city…like a sable funeral pall, enveloping in its somber folds the spires
and domes that glitter on the several hills of the Capital City…while the toot,
toot, toot of the fire engine, and the hoarse profanity of the enthusiastic volunteer
firemen, seemed a solemn and appropriate dirge as the old sarcophagus crumbled.
Low water pressure at the nearest hydrant, which was not all that close due to
the fact that two previous sessions of the Legislature had not seen fit to appropriate
money for fire hydrants on the Capitol grounds, prevented the volunteer firefighters
from putting much more than a light mist on the blaze. In two hours, only a blackened
limestone shell remained.
building after it burned on Nov. 9, 1881. |
photo courtesy Murray
monstrosity…at the head of Congress Avenue is no more,” the Texas Siftings famously
summarized. “The venerable edifice that bore such a striking resemblance to a
large size corn crib, with a pumpkin for a dome…took fire on Wednesday….”
newspaper reaction to the loss of the Capitol varied from near indifference to
open sarcasm, many government records dating back to the days of the Republic
burned in the fire. Geologic samples and a collection of cultural artifacts, including
shields and lances seized by Indian-fighting Texas Rangers also went up in smoke.
In addition, 8,000 books were incinerated.
If the burning of the statehouse
was truly Henry McBride’s fault (he never denied the dubious honor, but someone
else’s shoddy installation of the stove pipe also played a role), the fire did
not cost him his job. He stayed on the state payroll until 1931.
McBride died at 76 on April 8, 1936, the Associated Press, which like the rest
of the mainstream media in Jim Crow days did not normally report the natural passing
of African-Americans, distributed a four-paragraph story noting the death of “the
negro who indirectly caused construction of Texas’
massive granite capitol.”
In truth, though McBride may have accidentally
started the fire, state officials already had been planning for a new
Capitol, a grand structure that would be a much more fitting home for the
government of the nation’s largest state. But the fire did speed up the process.
Since the new Capitol
would be erected where the old one stood, the fire might even have saved the state
a little money in wrecking costs.
- October 18, 2012 column
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